Thompson champions karate in MMA, seeks welterweight title at UFC 209

Stephen Thompson has utilized karate to put himself on the precipice of UFC stardom. At UFC 205, in the co-main event against Tyron Woodley, he hopes it'll make him welterweight champion. Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: This story was originally posted ahead of UFC 205. It has been adjusted to reflect the rematch at UFC 209.

On Saturday, history could repeat itself when Stephen Thompson (13-1-1) challenges Tyron Woodley (16-3-1) at UFC 209 for the welterweight title in Las Vegas.

It was more than seven years ago when a karate expert challenged and defeated a wrestler for a UFC title. At UFC 98, Lyoto Machida knocked out Rashad Evans for the light heavyweight strap, inciting UFC commentator Joe Rogan to utter the famous words, "Welcome to the Lyoto Machida era."

Could this be the start of the Wonderboy Era?

The parallels between the two fights and styles used are no doubt, well, striking. And the outcome is something Thompson hopes to mimic as well.

His rise to No. 1 contender status in the welterweight division is a vindication of sorts for karate. The long-standing perception that karate is impractical for MMA started to turn when Machida rose to prominence. Indeed, many past champions in recent years such as George St Pierre, Anthony Pettis and Ben Henderson all boast deep karate backgrounds that served as the foundation for their striking, footwork and agility.

"You see all of those champions, you know they all learned outside the Octagon -- their persistence and discipline to be a champion -- they learned that from karate," Machida says.

But considering the widespread popularity of karate around the world and especially in the United States, how did that perception ever begin?

The myth of karate in MMA

According to Machida, traditional karate -- the kind he and his family practice at Machida Karate Academy in Los Angeles -- utilizes many more elbow and knee strikes.

Karate, however, had taken on a more "sport" approach during the developmental days of mixed martial arts, with points tournaments where elbow and knee strikes are frowned upon, as they simply cause too much damage. Traditional karate as a combat sport had gotten, as Thompson says, "watered down."

Because of this, MMA fighters saw little value in a style that seemed largely for show.

"You got a lot of schools opening up that stressed doing things that would score points and maybe not as practical for a street situation," Thompson says.

"So in the early UFC, everyone looked down on it. People would say, 'those angles and spinning kicks won't work in mixed martial arts,'" Thompson added. "But Machida was the one who really brought it back."

Thompson's dad and trainer, Ray, agreed.

"I think the perception of karate, until the Machida era, was karate doesn't work. Early UFCs karate guys got crushed because they couldn't grapple," says Ray, a former karate and kickboxing pro. "They'd try their kicks and punches and just get taken down. They just got beat up. They had no idea what to do on the ground."

The integration of karate into today's MMA offers it a rebirth in the sport. As MMA evolves, the precision and fluidity of a fighter's integration of combat disciplines can be the difference between a good fighter and a great fighter.

Machida says karate can be very effective in honing a fighter's timing and use of distance. Where Machida is a masterful counterstriker with impeccable timing, especially against charging opponents, Thompson is one of the best at using his length -- particularly in his legs.

"You're seeing it more and more in MMA, in the movements and stances. That's my goal, to bring karate back and to help it grow in the UFC," Machida said. "But it's not an easy technique to learn. It takes a long time to build up the muscles in the front leg and the balance on the back foot. It's not something you can learn in a couple of months."

Watch Thompson when he's in his traditional southpaw, or side-out stance. He actually uses his leg as a longer jab. While he's listed at having a 75-inch reach, jabbing with kicks gives him a distinct advantage as he tries to keep the 5-foot-9 Woodley at bay. According to FightMetric ahead of the fight at UFC 205, Thompson's 4.7 strikes per minute (SLpM) ranks sixth-highest among UFC welterweights.

"Wonderboy is a unique guy. His timing is so good -- that is very hard to teach," Machida says.

This side-out approach allows Thompson to keep his hands down and come from multiple angles with both his legs and fists, in combinations, hook and head kicks. The position of his hands does leave his head exposed, but that's actually what Thompson wants.

"You blade that body and [it] gives a smaller target for your opponent," Thompson said. "I have my hands down, so you gotta get past my arm to get to my body. You turn straight on doing the Muay Thai, those kicks are straight on and always there [on the body], so that's a lot of wear and tear on you. I think our careers will last longer not taking the abuse, especially the head. That goes for training as well."

But that head also serves as a kind of bait for aggressive strikers. As they come in, Thompson's footwork allows him to pivot and counterstrike effectively, and while the front leg seems exposed and ripe for a single-leg takedown, Thompson's improved takedown defense and quick feet allow him to either sidestep or readjust and sprawl.

"Yeah, I'll leave my head out there just to get guys to throw at it, and you'll take one on the nose every now and then," Thompson says. "But my feints and head movement are key to making that effective."

Thompson has effectively worked karate into an approach that also includes a ground game that has significantly improved since he entered the UFC in 2009. He's earned a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and a first-degree black belt in Tetsu Shin Ryu Ju-Jitsu (Japanese ju-jitsu), but he's probably most proud of how much his wrestling has improved. "That's probably the biggest thing that's different in me since my only UFC loss (to Matt Brown in 2009)," Thompson said.

Of course, it also helps when former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman, a two-time All-American wrestler, is your brother-in-law.

Training with the best

Thompson's trained with Weidman for several years, but he's been training with his dad Ray since he was 3. Ray Thompson was a champion kickboxer and runs Upstate Karate in their native South Carolina. Thompson also served as the punching bag to older brother Tony and his sister Lindsay, both accomplished martial artists in their own right, but dad's influence is unmatched.

"I remember taking Stephen to UFC 2 or 3 and he was just hooked after that," Ray says.

Thompson first toyed with the notion of entering mixed martial arts after working out at Tristar Gym in Montreal, Canada -- the home and training center of Firas Zahabi and Georges St Pierre.

It's a career that has suited him well. With such an esteemed pedigree, Thompson, 33, seems ready for prime time.

Weidman trains with Matt Serra and Ray Longo on Long Island, and all of them have been major proponents and activists in getting MMA legalized in New York State. Thompson also sees this fight as an opportunity to show his appreciation for all that Weidman has done.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my family and my team and Chris, so I'm doing this for all of them --and [for] the sport," Thompson says.